7 ways to better, stronger passwords

New York – This week’s news that a Russian crime ring has amassed some 1.2 billion username and password combinations makes now a good time to review ways to protect yourself online.

The hacking misdeeds were described in a New York Times story based on the findings of Hold Security, a Milwaukee firm that has a history of uncovering online security breaches.

Make sure your passwords are strong. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski. Credit: REUTERS

Hold Security called the data "the largest known collection of stolen Internet credentials". Hold’s researchers did not identify the origins of the data or name the victim websites, citing nondisclosure agreements. The company also said it didn’t want to name companies whose websites are still vulnerable to hacking, according to the Times report.

If there’s reason to believe any of your passwords might have been compromised, change them immediately. One of the best things you can do is to make sure your passwords are strong. Here are seven ways to fortify them:

* Avoid easy-to-guess words, even if they aren’t in the dictionary. You shouldn’t use your name, company name or hometown, for instance. Avoid pets and relatives’ names, too. Likewise, avoid things that can be looked up, such as your birthday or ZIP code. But you might use that as part of a complex password. Try reversing your ZIP code or phone number and insert that into a string of letters. As a reminder, you should also avoid "password" as the password, or consecutive keys on the keyboard, such as "1234" or "qwerty”.

The other exception is to log in using a centralised sign-on service such as Facebook Connect. Hulu, for instance, gives you the option of using your Facebook username and password instead of creating a separate one for the video site. This technically isn’t reusing your password, but a matter of Hulu borrowing the log-in system Facebook already has in place. The account information isn’t stored with Hulu. Facebook merely tells Hulu’s computers that it’s you. Of course, if you do this, it’s even more important to keep your Facebook password secure.